Student work: Poems with no metaphors in ’em

The exercise: Compose a short poem with no metaphor or simile in it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with metaphor. Some of my best friends are metaphors. But we in the West are metaphor junkies, thank you Aristotle (“to be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far, a sign of genius”). So it’s good now and then to go dry. What can you do minus that junk? How do you make a poem work without yer fix?

Hello, syntax and line. Hello, metonymy. Hello, objectivist mode, basically, though I save that for elsewhile. And coinages, hello too! Language is full of forces we are totally out of control of and yet surf fluently in our wake and sleep with astonished ease. Tweak them just a bit and you draw them into awareness and that’s poetry. (See what went on there with wake, e.g.? Didn’t intend it, just saw it and commented latterly, and that’s prose.)

Enough preamble, on to some student work.


Here’s one by Steve Lemma – excuse me, that’s “Goldenrod Steve” – that’s quite careful, in a seemingly careless way, with the composition, the putting-in-places, of its syntax – fragments and all. It also has an admirably various line, not just its length, also how little or much torque it asserts upon the syntax of the thought passing through.  

Subtle
fading
ink running down the wrist.

Specifically!

Subtle fading
blues.

Darker than
the
car,

Lighter

than
your irreparable attitude.

Welcome to this side of the world,
kid.

You may n
ever make it back.

The under
belly is hungry
almost
as much as me.

I think a couple of the moves here, re: the line, are stretches, but that’s less important to me, as teacher, than that he’s messing around, trying stuff out. (BTW, I’m counting the comparisons as not similes, since they compare extant objects in the poem’s field, to others the same.)


First aside. “Go dry.” Is that metaphor or metonym? How about “that junk”?


Another one, by Rob Jones – turns out no one wants to be anonymous, why was I doing that, don’t remember, probably had a good reason that’ll come back to bite me – short and sweet –

FREQUENCIES

That ringing,
A sound
I will never hear again.

The frequencies

Heard less
And less frequently,
As my eardrums become less taut.

My proposal to Rob was, cut the last line. With that line the poem is nailed to its occasion. Without it, the occasion’s forgot, and the language can widen beyond whatever thought happened to incite it. (This is an curious case of what Richard Hugo called the “triggering subject” showing up in the last line. But one feels it was held in reserve all the poem long – I’m suggesting, hold it in reserve even longer, till the poem is fine without it.)


Second aside. Compose, not write, because as I did say later, they mighta done a visual poem, and solved their problem right there. I give maddeningly open exercises. But in them every word does matter: “embody spring” means embody spring; “myth consciousness” means myth consciousness. Why so uptight? In the poem, too, every word matters, otherwise no word does, in which case, stop.


Here’s another, by Alex Hastings, who has a very Creeleyan ear for speech under pressure – pressure of strong feeling dimly understood (TOTAL INSIGHT MOMENT: Creeley was an avatar of Shakespeare), and she’s been learning how to get, not just the dimness, also the understanding and the strength, onto the page, by way of line, syntax, the tortured dance of them.

Legs
crossed over
cheap carpet, we
blink at our
each tired
faces and pick
another
fight.

Change the slightest thing here and you wreck it. For instance, fix the syntax, “each other’s tired / faces” – wrecked. The contortion of the syntax there recalls me to how my powers of language flee me when I’m in a fight with someone I love and who says they love me but isn’t seeming like that. I mean, oh my students, you can create great storms of emotion in a poem without ever naming an emotion. Also, FYI, without many adjectives – “cheap,” “tired” are the only here.


Third aside. Since I went to Urban Dictionary (“elsewhile”) – the poetry of that. Our natural unconscious and dionysiac poetic fluency. And let’s aleatorize the fuck out of it. My pasketti is boiling so let’s be quick also. Random number generator to choose letter then entry. Let’s say thrice and see what comes.

 “Zombie company.”

1. A technically bankrupt company that is kept alive with large infusions of government money for the sake of “stability” in the U.S. financial system. 2. A large financial company with negative net worth that continues to operate, despite having no clear path to solvency. 3. The UnDead of Wall Street.

“rrrrrrrrrrs”

what stoner says when mad

stoner 1: rrrrrrrs, i need money to buy weed, but i smoke weed because i have money.

preppie boy 1: wait…..what?

gpoyefd

Gratuitous Picture Of Yourself Every Fucking Day

I see a picture of someone who is asleep in class, “GPOYEFD”

So I was real worried, around word two, how I was going to get a poem out of this, but GPOYEFD saved the day. Does this not come together as an incisive remark upon the tedium a certain once awesome post-apocalyptic fantasia has come to?

AMC ODE

Zombie? Company.
Rrrrrrrs.
Gratuitous picture of yourself,
every fucking day.

I go back and forth on the comma. Imagine it spoken by a career extra.


Coupla more. This by Lauren Edison, who like Alex is working in a short line, not quite as enjambed, and not quite as spare of sense data, but headed in that dir.

DEPRESSION

I wake
to a preset tune
and white plaster walls.
Barren, save for shadows.
I blink. Rollover.
My screen says 7:00
January 18. Monday.

This wall, too, is barren.

Lauren’s syntaxes are intact, untorqued – she looks for what can be got through denotation and lineation within the rules of normative syntax, inhabited austerely. I am on her case about titles.


And one more, from Haley Kenville, which I suddenly now realize is her myth consciousness poem, that I was looking for in the exercise she submitted for that assignment, and was kinda hard on. (I’ll do a post on that ex., I hope.) Hear myth mind in that third bullet point?

In Order;

• Call ahead,
they’ll want to know you’ll be early
• Roll in late with hair
still wet from shower.
• Saturate trees with buds, so
they are prepped for your petal
firework finale
• Reign. Relax.
They have been waiting for your ascension

Not sure what she’s doing there with punc but that last line rocks my world. Because of the indefiniteness of the “you” – possible because the poem has let go of its inciting occasion – it points to me and to you, and anything green in anyone, even as it also calls to the Persephone-figure (as I read her) of the poem’s surface levels.


Last aside. Realizing once more how much of my teaching style comes from my Zen training. Don’t feed the ego – affirm the person. Cultivate intuition, spontaneity, not-knowing. Nourish faith in their inborn abilities, empathy, insight. And, be always poking, wherever they’re at rest, unsettle them.

And, to that last, I am always causing problems – as if my students didn’t have enough problems already? One asks me a question, and instead of answering him, I respond with a question. Then, as he’s working towards an answer, I interrupt him with another question. I must be maddening.

The intent’s generous – how can I in this moment help you further your inquiry – but I’m a limited human being. Right this moment anyway I’m feeling my limits. Often the generous is mixed up with stress or my own shit or simple fatigue or I’ve got a tummyache. I’m not often the Platonic ideal of Socrates the method seems to want.

Dude. Zen, Plato, you should ride a motorcycle, and then maybe write a book.

What am I here to say. I’m grasping towards a place where fucking it up somewhat is still okay. For them or for me. Hurting other people heedlessly is not okay – don’t do that in my classroom. You’ll hurt other people, I have, you will, but not heedlessly, please. Also, don’t be lazy – this is the Zen training coming in – treat this as the matter of life and death it is (OMG did I write that, do I believe it, I do). Other than that, be free.

And with that, my dream syllabus, any course

Don’t hurt anyone heedlessly.
Don’t be lazy.
Treat it as a matter of life and death.
Other than, in that, be free.

this post must come to an end. Oh and here’s Bodhidharma for ya.


bodhidharma2a

Student work: Write spring

The exercise was to write a poem that enacts or embodies spring.

Not a poem “about” spring, that’s easy. A poem that is spring, be’s spring, bees spring, in its flesh, its bones. How do you write a poem that’s green, that’s growth, motion, variance, blowsiness, or whatever spring is to you – no, in you – such that it comes across, takes root in reader, flowers and seeds there?

Many fell into the trap of subject matter, and that’s okay, it’s a good where to start from. By the time we were done talking of Williams’s Spring and All they got, I think, what it is to meet spring, eyeball-to-eyeball, a gist of it anyway.

And for sure our talk of the supreme importance of the spectacle

an elderly man who
smiled and looked away

to the north past a house—
a woman in blue

who was laughing and
leaning forward to look up

into the man’s half
averted face

and a boy of eight who was
looking at the middle of

the man’s belly
at a watchchain—

passing namelessly landed for me, and that was them teaching me, I learned more about the line there as such, its supremacy (if that word might ever be rescued for re-use) and ephemerality.

More than one did get what it was to enact spring but only one gave me hers back to post. This is by Hannah Bender and it’s made of joy –

YOU

—doublemint cars dusty ceramic roses unpainted fingernails white underwear white undershirt white ankle socks nineteen fifty seven chevy bel air in pink and cream leather pearly cocaine pears and game hen hospital wall green punch bougainvillea bunny teacup airplanes red velveteen movie theater milk chocolate strawberry gift wrap hair throw up cake mice tv saint francis bambi’s mother anne frank donald duck orange juice baths buttons—

I asked her about it, she said something like, you don’t have to wait for spring for it to be spring. You just take any moment and look at it close enough – spring is coiled in there. I hope I have that right; I think she put it better.

Anyway she put it beautifully – she got the intention of the assignment better than I ever did when I came up with it. Those em-dashes, I imagine reaching into any moment of perception, physically prying it open, and those dashes are the beams I prop in to keep it from slamming closed on me while I walk among the moment’s occult contents.


Cornell - Celestial
Which are the poem. Also come to mind Cornell’s boxes, which, whatever in specific they contain, have as one of their utterances spread evenly over all they hold, I’m glad you are.


Look topside. My “featured image” removes the boxed from the box. Why’s that feel like an injury? But it does. When’s sampling a denaturing? It is, sometimes. Spring couldn’t spring had it no winter to push off from.


Almost forgot the title of Hannah’s but you see how it matters. The whole poem’s a synonym for its title yes?

Springly exercises

That’s a wrap on Spring and All and great good fun it’s been. Dunno if I’ve had a class meet this one so freely or fleetly before. Here are their first exercises in case any’d like to play along:

  • Write a poem that interrupts itself more than once.
  • Write a poem that enacts or embodies spring.
  • Write a poem with no metaphor or simile in it.

Any familiar with Spring and All will get why. (WILLIAM LOGAN. YOU COULD TRY THESE. IF YOU THINK THE HISTORICAL WHEELBARROW MATTERS TRY THESE.

And I quote, “The only realism in art is of the imagination.”

And I quote, “First must come the transposition of the faculties to the only world of reality that men know: the world of the imagination.”

And I quote, “poetry: new form dealt with as a reality in itself.”

WILLIAM LOGAN. THE PROVENANCE OF THE RED WHEELBARROW DON’T MATTER. READ THIS. SAVE YOURSELF. WE SUFFER W/ YOU.
                – da white chickens

and no we no Plato)


So much to say about this little poem, which is so easily denatured, benumbed, by anthologies, high school classrooms. Students often come to college hating it. Or, worse, thinking it a metaphor. Consider, there’s no metaphor in it –

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

How, though, does it tell us not to cut to metaphor? Its particularity. There aren’t a lot of particulars, but those there are, they have roughness, rugosity, they refuse the reduction, the simplification, the let’s just say it dumbing-down, you gotta do to a thing before you can make it tenor in a metaphor, and space-tie it to a vehicle. That the rainwater glazes the surface it lies on, makes it tangible, specific, momentary, and unconvertible.

It’s language, so it’s part of a system of semiotic exchanges, no way round that, but it resists entry into the second-order system of exchanges that sustain literary tropes like metaphor. It refuses to be made currency.

What depends on a red wheelbarrow,

I asked them to consider, beforehand, and please commit it to paper?

—And be particular?

—The poem, one said, depends on it.

Yeah, good answer.

The wheelbarrow is, as one student said, touching our earlier talk of Buber’s I-Thou, let be a value in itself. Though it’s in ordinary use a tool, instrument, for the sake of the poem it’s a good in itself. (Coulda gone to Heidegger there but thought to spare her. But think Van Gogh’s worn out shoes.)

I got tenor and vehicle the wrong way round up there, but I ha!, like my metaphor too well to bother to fix it.


This one is, by the by, for my old teacher Don Revell. I wonder how he is.

Much else I’d love to say, but time presses, and appetite. I treated myself last night to a Dungeness crab after a tenured colleague made me sad, angry, perplexed by poaching my classroom from me – today I well remember I’m contingent labour – and half’s in the fridge there awaiting me eagerly.

So I won’t try to say all the else about the poem I learned today from talking with my students about it. Why it’s a not the red wheelbarrow – the definite article would be more particular but at the cost of exclusion. And how much world comes to mind metonymically, a barnyard and American era, without the edge-smoothing of metaphor (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”). That each line is a moment of perception beseeching total attention. For reals, see how it’d be broke if the lines broke different –

glazed with
rain water

beside the
white chickens

– it’s destroyed, right? All the held energy, everything bearing the elements up in a network of dynamic tensions, gone. Line as perceptual trace. A whole world for as long as it lasts, and gone when it’s gone. So the next can live.

WILLIAM LOGAN – oh, why do I bother?

Teaching phil (expandated)

Go figure. Work on another teaching statement for another job app snagged my active engaged interest. Results here. Wary be, some loftiness ahead. And still enamoured of the pilcrow.


The more I write and teach the less I know. In my writing, most of a poem now is found in the moment at hand, in what senses, breath, and mind, each attuned to each, have to say. In that same spirit of unknowing, though, I am less prone than I was, as a young teacher, to think my process a template for my students. More and more they teach me how to teach them. I teach revision as re-vision, deep new seeing. Some students see newly by reworking one body of words: with each pass they come closer to what they meant, or might mean anew. For others, revision means turning the page; rework­ing one piece, they worry it to death. So I have students try it both ways and work with them as they come to a sense of their own practices. My workshops emphasize non-evaluative feedback. I find peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when praise and advice are set mostly aside. This ap­proach has a downside—the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not—but I find most students come to prefer it before long. I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae”—the capacity for close attention to the texture of your moment-to-moment experience of your own writing. I find faithful attention to those tingles of excitement, those pulses of boredom, guides composition and revision more reliably than any creative writing precept or external feedback. And I believe everyone has that capacity, though it’s often obscured by self-doubt or anxiety. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel. All the methods I use in the classroom—peer critique, small group work, class discussion, wacky writing prompts—are meant to foster that process of clarification. Many also ask students to work with differences of background and temperament they may have with their peers. For instance, I often put students in pairs to restore line breaks to a poem I’ve set as a para­graph. One is to make sure the line breaks are expressive, the other that the line itself has integrity. Each has to contact her felt sense of the poem’s language, and to feel through how new lineations will create new patterns of energy. And each has, as she articulates her perceptions, to accommodate the perhaps quite different values and priorities of her partner. In this way, the sort of difference a line break is, brushes against the sort of difference another person is. The values I’ve set out here, self-aware­ness, self-inquiry, empathy across differences, have meaning beyond the creative writing classroom. They are, to my mind, crucial to any humanistic education, and have something real to offer the business major, the nurse in training, the nascent physicist. And creative writing has ways of eliciting these values maybe not to be found elsewhere.  But far fewer of a given school’s students will take a creative writing workshop than take a general education course. So it’s important to me, in my general university courses, which at Western are capped at 60 or 75 students, to carry over all I can from my practice as a creative writing teacher. I rarely lecture for more than two or three minutes at a time. My mini-lectures are usually impromptu—offered as our conversation seems to warrant. I make a point of learning everyone’s names, and make getting a student’s name wrong a point of fun at my expense, to model that I’m learning, too. Really a pretty small expense. I use small group work so everyone can collaborate in their own education. And I give assignments that draw on both creative and analytical faculties—per­form­ance projects, formal debates, journal assignments that ask students to write a soliloquy in blank verse or a scene in the post-apocalyptic creole in which the novel we’re reading is narrated. My hope is that, through activities like these, students will draw their creative, intuitive, emotional, and analytic faculties closer together, and they will be more available to them in their other coursework, their careers, and their social and spiritual lives.

Teaching phil

(Spillover from a job app. Why am I putting it here? Someone might be curious? And, I was having fun with the pilcrow.)


Teaching Statement

The more I write and teach the less I know. In my writing, most of a poem now is found in the moment at hand, in what senses, breath, and mind, each attuned to each, have to say. In that same spirit of unknowing, though, I am less prone than I was, as a young teach­er, to think my process a template for my students. More and more they teach me how to teach them. I teach revision as re-vision, deep new seeing. Some students see newly by reworking one body of words: with each pass they come closer to what they meant, or might mean anew. For others, revision means turning the page; rework­ing one piece, they worry it to death. So I have students try it both ways, and work with them in conference as they come to a sense of their own practices. My workshops emphasize non-evaluative feedback. I find that peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when praise and advice are set mostly aside. This ap­proach has a downside—the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not—but I find most students come to prefer it before long. I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae”—the capacity for close attention to the texture of your moment-to-moment experience of your own writing. I find that faithful attention to those tingles of excitement, those pulses of boredom, guides composition and revision more reliably than any creative writing precept or external feedback. And I believe everyone has that capacity, though it’s often obscured by self-doubt or anxiety. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel. All the methods I use in the classroom—peer critique, small group work, class discussion, wacky writing prompts—are meant to foster that process of clarification. Many also ask students to negotiate differences of background and temperament they might have with their peers. For instance, I often put students in pairs to restore line breaks to a poem I’ve set as a prose para­graph. One is to make sure that the line breaks are expressive, the other that the line itself has integrity. Each has to contact her felt sense of the poem’s language, and to feel through how new lineations will create new patterns of energy. And each has, as she articulates her perceptions, to accommodate the perhaps quite different values and priorities of her partner. In this way, the sort of difference a line break is, brushes on the sort of difference another person is.


POSTSCRIPT. Reading about the pilcrow in Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Good fun and some neat finds. But dreadful editing. Dangling modifiers so thick methinks I need a machete. Come on, Norton, you’re better than this.

Student work: Phone number poems

Some phone number poems by my students. Tinkered to keep their actual phone numbers private! Again I’m struck by how good these are, how dynamic the line breaks, and compact the thought of them.


A clock,

Four chimes until sun
Hung lonely on a barroom wall
Tick tock.
Hank,
Red eyes, crooked spine
Twelve drinks until the night shift starts,
It’s only cycles
Tick tock.


What did you
do to make them so mad?

Insult their baking skills?
Or was it something worse? You
can tell me.

Well,
I said their baby was handsome.
Turns out, it’s a girl.


To be
just what I wanted
in the past, then
here
and now

falling down
getting up
just how I
wanted.


Hello there
I first saw you last night

Your face was set by moon light
Salty misty
Air
On the beach a glimpse of your
Red hair.
Hello there, if I may
I am in love with a silhouette.


Where is
my cat?
Is she hiding?
She hides in cupboards
sometimes.
She is an elusive ghosty.
Consistently
floats around my
house
like a spook.


Well well well,
Lookie what we have here.

An ambassador from my
hometown. You thought I’d left?

Negatory.
Still here.
I called finders keepers on
steering a bike with just one finger.


Melody
She sings as if it were life

She sighs soft songs
as if it were sad-
ness her
voice silences
the audience that
comes for her sweet sighing
of song


Can’t sleep.

I guess I rarely do.
I’m trying to keep my promise.
Hope.
I wish I could call,
I need your help.
He needs brothers.
The rain comes more often than it did.
They tore down the place you saved me.


I saw

no I have not seen it
I dreamt it sleeping sideways
on route to somewhere white
I had not yet an understanding
of what pictures could mean
I just felt you through the glass door
say nothing of truth
I know


Exercise: Phone number poem

From our unit on the line.

Write a poem using your own phone number, with area code, as the template. Specifically, the number of syllables in each line should match the corresponding number in your phone number. If your area code is 360, the first line has three syllables, the second line has six, and the third line is blank (a stanza break).

The poem should read naturally—as if it just took this shape of its own accord. Don’t worry about the subject, let the form lead you where it will. An example:

360-650-6354

How did you                                         3
find your way to this place?                   6
                                                                                     0
Oh, I was just thinking                          6
one day about toads,                          5
                                                                                    0
toads that look like stones, stones     6
that are toads                                                  3
when no one’s looking                          5
at them at all.                                    4

Not anyone’s actual number. Exercise adapted from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing.